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Conrad debt task force has Obama's support

The Obama administration has endorsed a plan to create a task force to address the nation's staggering debt. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., made the proposal in the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action Act. Both...

Kent Conrad
Kent Conrad

The Obama administration has endorsed a plan to create a task force to address the nation's staggering debt.

Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., made the proposal in the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action Act.

Both are senior members of the Senate Budget Committee, Conrad as chairman and Gregg as ranking member.

The White House released a statement Saturday in which President Obama said he "strongly" supports the Conrad-Gregg proposal. "These deficits did not happen overnight, and they won't be solved overnight. We not only need to change how we pay for policies, but we also need to change how Washington works. The only way to solve our long-term fiscal challenge is to solve it together -- Democrats and Republicans."

"Our statutory task force proposal provides the best chance for developing a truly bipartisan solution to this problem," Conrad echoed in a statement Monday. "No one political party can solve this on its own. We need both sides of the aisle committed to working together to confront the threat of runaway debt."

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According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2008, the United States' public debt is equivalent to an estimated 37.5 percent of its gross domestic product. That is, if America were a person making $50,000 a year, it would owe $18,750, though because of continued budget deficits, it's not paying the debt off but getting in deeper.

Among the 126 countries listed, that level of debt is the 61st highest. The world champion is the troubled nation of Zimbabwe, known for 100 billion and 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bank notes. It owes an estimated 265.6 percent of GDP.

Conrad's office said the 18-member task force would "review all aspects of the current and long-term financial condition of the federal government." Of these, 16 would be Congressional members, one the treasury secretary and one more selected by the president.

For the task force to issue a recommendation to Congress, 14 of its members would have to agree. Congress would consider the recommendation under "expedited procedures," meaning an up-or-down vote with no amendments, and the recommendation would only pass with a supermajority vote in the House and Senate.

Conrad said he spoke on the Senate floor Monday to urge his colleagues to approve the task force when it comes up for a vote today.

The bill has 27 co-sponsors in addition to Conrad and Gregg, 14 of them Republicans, 12 Democrats and one independent. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are among them.

Conrad spokesman Sean Neary said the bill has the support of a total of 29 senators, down from 34 earlier because of a strong push against it by some conservatives.

As a gauge of the political barometer, though, he noted that newly elected Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is also on board with the task force.

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Critics say the task force would be paralyzed by the 14-member-agreement and the supermajority requirements, and if that didn't happen, it would virtually guarantee a tax hike. Other critics say that the task force would virtually guarantee cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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